The Villa shambles: High time for a hero

Who's next for lead role in Midlands soap opera with everything bar a happy ending?
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The Independent Football

Ambition and investment, or the lack of either in sufficient quantities, lie at the heart of Aston Villa's turbulent summer. Six months ago, however, a figure emerged who planned to use a vast oil fortune to lure a top international coach and his captain to Birmingham 6. With them on board, the big names would be pouring off Spaghetti Junction.

It proved to be another red-top exposé of Sven Goran Eriksson, but the "fake sheikh" sting was no more implausible to Villa followers than the events that led to last week's parting between Doug Ellis and David O'Leary. The story contained threads of farce, subterfuge and courtroom drama before a dén-ouement familiar at Villa Park: the chairman stays, the manager goes - and the fans don't know whether to laugh or cry.

There was certainly no wailing or gnashing of teeth over O'Leary's demise. Rightly or wrongly, he had come to be perceived by many as a villain (as opposed to a Villan), who, like Ellis, was preventing a club who are now the only Midlands representatives in the élite division from fulfilling their destiny. The view that he did not have the club at heart became widespread, leading to cynical criticism of a former Arsenal legend's understandable wish to have a farewell-to-Highbury picture taken after Arsenal had violated Villa 5-0 last spring.

The feeling that O'Leary was forever making excuses for the underachievement of the team - who finished last season in 16th place, exactly where Graham Taylor had left them before Ellis first brought the Irishman in three years earlier - also counted against him. But he would still have been in charge for the first match of the coming season, which coincidentally takes Villa to Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium, but for allegations that he had instigated the so-called players' statement a week last Friday which characterised Ellis's stewardship as parsimonious.

Intriguingly, there was almost a proxy war between the Ellis and O'Leary camps in the pages of the region's two evening papers, the Birmingham Mail and Wolverhampton's Express & Star. O'Leary alleged last season that the Mail'sVilla reporter was a West Bromwich Albion fan with an agenda against him and the club. By contrast, he had good relations with the rival paper's man, who collated the player interviews that formed the anti-Ellis statement. The two journals spent the week claiming they had led the way, all the time pouring fuel on the fire.

It was inevitable they would each claim a different candidate to be Ellis's first choice to succeed O'Leary, namely Alan Curbishley and Martin O'Neill. Curbishley, who left Charlton in May after 15 years, is a former Villa player but has insisted he plans to take a break from football until he has visited relatives in New Zealand in the autumn (or the managerial sacking season, as it might also be termed).

O'Neill likes a quirky challenge, while history suggests he does not see it as vital to be bosom pals with his chairman (he portrayed his employer at Leicester as having senile memory difficulties when he would not let him talk to Leeds, but still stayed at the club). Moreover, the former Celtic manager knows the Midlands and its media - and he has discussed the Villa post with Ellis before.

Graeme Souness cannot be discounted, being available, experienced and a friend of Ellis's, while Sam Allardyce's attempt to succeed Eriksson as England coach demonstrated a desire to broaden his horizons.

Ellis has often looked to members of the Villa "family", eg Taylor on his return, John Gregory and Brian Little, and this time Gordon "Sid" Cowans has been touted to move up from the club's Academy. Whoever the 82-year-old Ellis is wooing, from a yacht not dissimilar to the fake sheikh's, the haste with which he saw off O'Leary must now be applied to the pursuit of his replacement.